Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A dialogue of the sources.(Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts andAffections)(Book review).

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In Joanna Russ's slim but classic treatise How to Suppress Women's Writing (1973), the feminist science fiction writer identified the overt and covert ways American women writers had internalized the dominant culture's messages about why they could not or should not write. When Russ wrote her book, awareness alone was a triumph; but in 2008, a woman wants options. Women Poets on Mentorship, edited by poets Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker, is a survival manual, a hybrid of personal essay, contemporary women's poetry anthology, teacher's guide, and tribute. One of its essays tucked into the pages of a literary journal might raise an eyebrow; all of them housed in one volume create a landmark.

Greenberg and Zucker are mindful of Alicia Ostriker's observation two decades ago in Stealing the Language: The Emergence of Women's Poetry in America: "The house of poetry has many mansions, and among the attractions of the women's poetry movement is its encouragement of diversity." They construct a sturdy house of essays about women's efforts to break through the tyranny of suppression. Most hinge on file moment when the writer declares, "Yes, I'm going to be a poet." Crucial to her ability to define herself is the presence of a seasoned woman poet. As Muriel Rukeyser writes, in The Life of Poetry, "[I]n great poetry, you feel a source speaking to another source." Greenberg and Zucker dramatize that intimate exchange by placing the work of poets born after 1960 side-by-side with their chosen counterparts from previous generations.

However a women writer identifies, she should be able to find herself in these essays, in which women with a range of voices, experiences, and poetic styles grapple with the process of becoming poets. And all readers, regardless of gender, should be able to reach a deeper understanding of why women's writing matters: women have something to teach everyone about motherhood, abuse, sexuality, and identity. Crafted by poets, these essays share one of the defining qualities of poetry: the ability to transcend its particulars and reach toward, and touch, universal meaning.

Greenberg and Zucker wisely decided not to impose a rigid definition of mentor on their writers, allowing the essays to create a fluid, expansive definition that runs organically through the book. The opening essay, "Jenny Factor on Marilyn Hacker," depicts the vulnerability of the emerging poet who seeks the counsel of an accomplished one. Factor, a young mother in the throes of discovering her lesbian identity, discovers in Hacker's biography and work "my life's sound track, her voice my intimate coconspirator." Factor then chronicles their history, including the charming story of their first meeting, when a bookstore employee accuses the crushed-out Factor of trying to steal a stack of Hacker's books after a reading. Hacker comes to Factor's rescue. The rest of the essay prepares us to consider the roles and responsibilities inherent in the complex dynamics between mentor and student over time: "When mentoring works, it meets some primary needs of both parties ... explorers together, [the poets] are ultimately more interested in the varied terrain than in one another."

Thus, Jennifer Moxley declares, "I was not mentored by Susan Howe, but I was mentored by her writing." Other writers like Joy Katz (on Sharon Olds) and Valerie Martinez (on Joy Harjo) offer variations on the experience of being mentored by a poet's work. Miranda Field employs a close reading of Fanny Howe's poetry to illustrate her influence: "In Howe's poems, the motherness of the speaking 'I' is given as a fundamental, personal, and a priori condition ... She reminds me to listen past the perfect cadence--to interrupt beauty, like turning off the music to hear the child crying in the other room, the jackhammer outside."

In "Kirsten Kashock on Being Nonmentored," Kashock pulls us to the other end of the mentoring spectrum. She explains her hesitation to connect with a mentor and uses her craft to imagine the relationship she might have if she "were more receptive to living authority." Kashock's essay highlights the fact that each piece here is a front door into one of Ostriker's mansions. Some of the poets burst giddily into their own surprise parties; others tentatively cross the threshold; and still others, like Kashock, stand outside, questioning whether to enter at all.

With the doors of English departments cracking open to women writers, it is not surprising that a number of these essays focus on student/teacher relationships. The book champions feminist pedagogy and illustrates its impact on the field of teaching writing. It offers a trove of best practices for teaching poetry and other genres and is a guide for teachers who strive to place their students' learning before their own egos. Mendi Lewis Obidike shows how powerful a woman professor's wisdom can be for a student: "I have learned from [Toil Derricotte not only that we can be silent and invisible but also how to recognize and give voice to that silence and invisibility and how to change our relationships to those moments." And I myself particularly resonated with Tracy K. Smith's recollection of her first workshops with Lucie Brock-Broido at Harvard, Brock-Broido's voice "papery, low, her enunciation precise, as if Many of Her Words began with Majuscules"--extra-big capital letters. Years later, I, too, can still hear Lucie, during a balmy, summer-evening workshop, urging me to "go scare yourself." I spent the next week shaking as I wrote "Worship," my first-ever conscious poem about loving another woman.

Today's women poets live in a house of poetry that others before them built. Beth Ann Fennelly, in her homage to Denise Duhamel, is mindful of this when she says, "[N]ow that the generation of women poets before my own have established their seriousness, we're free to establish our playfulness. Now we can investigate the full range of human emotions." However, Danielle Pafunda warns, "If [Emily] Dickinson, [Gertrude] Stein, [Marianne] Moore, and others are read as anomalies rather than as a source of lineage, their echoes may go unnoticed in the work of women poets today." In telling their stories about the value of mentorship, these poets honor the lineage and announce themselves as available to the next generation as mentors.

Occasionally, the emerging poet's work gets lost in the vast shadow cast by her mentor. For instance, try to imagine any poem residing next to Sharon Olds's "Satan Says": "Say shit, say death, say fuck the father, / Satan says down my ear. / The pain of the locked past buzzes/in the child's box on her bureau ..." Fortunately, more often proximity brings out the strengths in both writers' work. Cin Salach and Maureen Seaton go even further through collaboration. Each line of the couplets in their "evolution" series inspires a line from the other: "And this is what you prayed for / It is / / while in you a small voice broke / like a thousand wine glasses, singing." (The alternation between bold and roman type represents the alternating voices.) This series reinforces a central theme in all of these essays: honoring the writing process by building community instead of creating competition.

While not all of the poets here write about a mentor they encountered in school, all but one have received or are currently pursuing graduate degrees. They have had the privilege of access to a community, or at least they know how to find one. But how can women writers not associated with degree programs find mentors? How true is the editors' claim that "the true cost of going it alone is hard for young American women writing today to fathom"? I hope that this book will give new writers a plausible road map to finding their mentors.

In their introduction, Greenberg and Zucker share their hopes that "this anthology, while being the first of its kind, will not be the last, and that future such projects will provide plenty of room for more exploration of the ideas we have begun to document." Inviting their peers to document lineages in women's poetry, they've crafted a mansion of teachings and art that tells us the truths about women as they continue to steal the language and redistribute the wealth. Like the editors, I look forward to sequels.

Sandra Yannone is a poet and directs the writing center at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her mentors include Sue Standing, Made Howe, Hilda Raz, Robin Becker, and Elizabeth Bishop.

Named Works: Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (Nonfiction work) Book reviews

Source Citation
Yannone, Sandra. "A dialogue of the sources." The Women's Review of Books Jan.-Feb. 2009: 28+. General OneFile. Web. 17 Feb. 2010.
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